Tughan & Co. (incorporating A. G. Burgess & Co.) Solicitors, Marlborough House, 30 Victoria Street, Belfast, sent the following letter to Daily Mirror journalist Paul Foot dated July 9th 1991.
Dear Mr. Foot,
Thank you for your letter of 1st July which arrived on 4th July and was waiting my return. Unfortunately I had been out of the country all week, hence your lack of success in speaking to me by telephone.
This firm has not been involved in all of the various matters which have been the subject of the investigation over the last number of years, although you have identified the strand which has involved us, namely that arising out of the involvement of Mr. Wright.
In relation to the affairs of Mr. Freddie Andrews Junior, he was a client of the firm and the Official Solicitor is now in charge of his affairs. Because of the principle of client confidentiality I have therefore felt it essential, at different stages, that I obtain the consent of the Official Solicitor to disclose information. I believe however that the contents of this letter require me to do no more than to copy the letter to the Official Solicitor as a matter of courtesy. This is on the basis that I have already had clearance to give it to other sources. However, you will have to bear with me in my approach to your questions because of that context.
Before specifically answering your questions I will set out some general information, as some of the statements and questions appear to be based on facts which I do not believe to be correct. By giving that background information by way of narrative I believe it will make the answering of those questions so much more simple.
In the paragraph (2) of your letter you refer to Mr. Wright having been convicted and given a suspended sentence for "fraudulently selling part of the Andrews Estate to a firm called Rylands".
I do not believe that is an accurate statement of what happened. To understand the background to the basis of the charge against Mr Wright one requires to go back some considerable time. Much of this information is contained in the report of the official Solicitor to the High Court, a report which I am fairly certain Mrs. Wright would have made available to you. For many years the family company, Andrews & Company (Belfast) Limited (which I will refer to hereafter as "the Company") enjoyed the use of two properties at Smithfield, number 62/65 Smithfield Square and 66/69 Smithfield Square and 1/11 Frances Street, Belfast on the basis of an annual rental. At some stage I believe these properties may have been in the name of Mr Andrews Senior, but then became the property of Mr Freddie Andrews Junior. The shares in Company were held by certain members of the Andrews family. At some stage consideration was given by the Directors of the Company to the possible purchase from Mr. Andrews Junior of both properties. However it would appear that the possible sale fell through and further consideration was given to a formal leasing arrangement by the Company, although no lease was ever executed and no payments of newly negotiated rents were made by the Company.
In and about 1977 Mr. Charles Gilpin held a substantial shareholding in another car company known as Neville Johnston (Garages) Limited. I will refer to this company as Neville Johnston. For some period Mr. Gilpin negotiated with the members of the Andrews family who held shares in the Company for the purchase of those shares. It seems to have been an integral feature of these negotiations that the Company should have a marketable title to both of the properties owned by Mr. Freddie Andrews Junior. Certainly the acquisition documents make reference to contracts for the purchase by the company of the properties. In 1977 Neville Johnston acquired the entire issued share capital in the Company. Some years later Mr. Gilpin negotiated the sale of his shares in Neville Johnston to Rylands. Since the Company was a subsidiary of Neville Johnston there would have been an investigation of the assets of Neville Johnston and the Company. One of the matters which would have been investigated was the land held and owned by the Company. The solicitors acting for Rylands asked for a certificate as to the Company's ownership of the Smithfield properties and Mr. Wright completed a certificate addressed to Rylands in terms that the Company owned the property at Smithfield.
In fact that turned out not to be the case. Throughout the investigations by the Official Solicitor (at first it was a Mr. Drennan) Mr. Wright made representations that at or about the time of the acquisition of the shares in the Company by Neville Johnston the sale of the Smithfield properties to the Company had been completed. The price paid was represented as £35.000, that being the £35,000 placed in the Northern Ireland industrial Bank in trust for Freddie Andrews Junior. That value for the properties had been determined by obtaining valuations from two firms of estate agents in Belfast. Despite those representations by Mr. Wright to Mr. Drennan, when Mr. Hall came to investigate the matter in the latter part of 1983, he approached us and asked for our assistance in trying to establish exactly what did happen in relation to these properties. We made a very thorough investigation of all our files and papers in our strong rooms. We were able to discover two documents purporting to be contracts for the sale of the Smithfield properties to the Company and also two uncompleted engrossments of assignments intended to relate to the sale of the two properties to the Company. We brought these documents immediately to the attention of the Official Solicitor. They established that, contrary to what had been represented by Mr Wright, namely that the property at Smithfield had been sold to the Company, that was not the case. The result was that the property had at all times continued to belong to Mr. Freddie Andrews Junior. When we were last in touch with the Official Solicitor at the end of that part of his investigation which involved ourselves, we understood that the property still remained in the name of Freddie Andrews Junior. I cannot assist you as to what has happened to it since then.
As a result of the above two things had to happen. First, rents which should have been received by Freddie Andrews Junior as the owner of the property had to be agreed, the Company having continued to occupy the premises on the same basis as before its acquisition by Neville Johnston, as a tenant. Those figures were agreed between this firm's advisors and the Official Solicitor, figures which were then confirmed as proper by Mr. Justice MacDermott, the Judge under whose control the entire investigation was taking place. Those rents, and I believe interest on them, were then paid to the Official Solicitor. Secondly the £35,000 which had represented the purported purchase monies were then repaid to the Company - since the property had not been sold, the purchase monies could not belong to the Estate of Freddie Andrews Junior.
As I have said above, I cannot assist you as to what has since happened to that property, it being under the control of the Official Solicitor.
It was the representation in the certificate of the title given to Rylands which gave rise to the charge against Mr Wright.
If I can then move on to another general point and that is the role of the Law Society of Northern Ireland. The Society is responsible for the conduct of solicitors in Northern Ireland, and, under the provisions of the Solicitors Order, the Society is obliged to investigate any complaints. It has certain limited provision to impose penalties on solicitors but these usually apply only in less serious matters. If the complaint involves more serious matters it is for the Society to direct such complaints for determination, and if necessary punishment, to the Disciplinary Committee. This Committee is established by the Order. Although then consisting of solicitors it is independent of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, its members being appointed by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. The Society's role is to prosecute those complaints it refers to the Committee. The Respondent Solicitor is entitled to put his side of the case and the Disciplinary Committee then make their decision. They have a wide range of powers, including that of striking solicitors off the Roll of Solicitors.
As an additional procedural step, at any time where a complaint is received by the Society which involves either a member of the Council of the Society or a member of a firm in which a member of Council is a partner or is employed, two senior Past Presidents are asked by the Council to review the papers and to give independent advice to the Council, advice which is rarely not followed.
In this particular case Mrs. Wright addressed a complaint to the Society about Mr. Wright in December 1985. The Society took the view that the complaint should be made by the Official Solicitor as representing Freddie Andrews Junior, the client. As a result, some time in and around January or February 1986 the Official Solicitor submitted a complaint. That complained about the actions of Mr. Wright and also alleged lack of supervision of Mr. Wright by the then partners of Tughan and Company.
A member of the staff of the Society met Mrs. Wright and also received very substantial papers from the Official Solicitor. The matter progressed quickly to the Law Society's Practice Committee, which makes recommendations to the Council, and on the 30th April 1986 the complaint against Mr. Wright was sent by the Council to the Disciplinary Committee. The independent opinion of the Senior Solicitors had been obtained since I was then a Council Member.
The complaint against the partners was held in abeyance until the complaint against Mr. Wright had been decided. In January 1987 the Disciplinary Committee decided that Mr. Wright was guilty of the misconduct alleged against him. Mr. Wright was suspended from practice for a period of three years, admonished and ordered to pay the costs of the Society and of the Committee.
(A few words are not legible at the beginning of this sentence)......it is not correct to say that the Society at first exculpated Mr. Wright. Within a matter of some four to five months from receipt of the initial complaint the matter had been sent to the Disciplinary Committee who, having followed their procedures, suspended Mr. Wright and imposed the other penalties.
Following that determination, the complaint against the relevant partners of our firm was continued, again using the same procedures and again with two Senior Solicitors looking at the partners' role. They and the Council decided the matter should be sent to the Disciplinary Committee and that occurred. The partners appeared before the Disciplinary Committee on the 18th October 1988. After a lengthy hearing the committee ordered that the complaint against the partners who were partners in the firm during the course of this matter be dismissed. It will not come as a surprise to you when I say that we fully agreed with that decision. Throughout all of the dealings which Mr. Wright carried out on behalf of Mr. Freddie Andrews Junior not once was any concern expressed by any member of the family to the partners about any step or event which had occurred. When Mr. Drennan, the then Official Solicitor, was appointed, the firm was asked to account for all monies going through the firm. This was done with full supporting documentation. It is quite clear that Mr. Wright misled Mr. Drennan in some of the replies to questions about the Patient's affairs. However Mr. Drennan did not address those questions to any of the partners. Indeed it is accepted by the Official Solicitor, Mr. Hall, in his report to the Court and by Mr. Wright himself that not only had Mr. Wright not availed himself of the opportunities to discuss with the partners any problems that he had, but that he misled the partners when questioned about various aspects of the affair. It was only when confronted with the objective evidence discovered by our own investigations that the whole matter was able to be resolved. Again this has been acknowledged by the Official Solicitor.
I will give below information regarding Mr. Wright and his standing and qualifications as requested by you. This firm believed that it had every right to expect that Mr. Wright could conduct the business which he was asked to conduct in a proper and competent matter. There were never any objective matters brought to the attention of the partners which would have identified to them what at the end of the day was the underlying problem in this particular matter, namely the mental incapacity of Mr. Freddie Andrews Junior. This incapacity was known to the members of the family and to Mr. Wright. The partners never met Mr. Andrews, the problem of capacity was never communicated to them nor was there ever any reason why they should have had cause for considering that there was such a problem. [Now that is just too hard to swallow, Mr. Burgess. You are saying that the partners of your firm, especially you, showed no interest in the owner of a large folio of properties in the centre of Belfast that you had charge of and responsibility for and that you had no inclination to meet such a wealthy client. That just could not be true and if it is true, your firm should not be allowed to operate.]
If I can then turn to your specific questions.
(1) Mr. Wright was a fully qualified solicitor. He had been employed by Tughan & Company sometime in the late 1960's before any of the present partners joined the firm. Prior to joining the firm he had spent a number of years in the Estate Duty Office in Belfast. We believe he obtained his University education whilst at the Estate Duty Office and qualified as a Solicitor having served his apprenticeship in Tughan & Company. In 1973, when the affairs of Mr. Freddie Andrews Junior were transferred to Tughan & Company, Mr. Wright would have been approximately 33 years of age and regarded by many in the profession as an extremely able solicitor. As an Assistant Solicitor he would have had the responsibilities delegated to him of dealing with clients' affairs commensurate with his age, experience and ability. Mr. Wright was dealing with Mr. Andrews' affairs before any of the present partners joined the firm. However, it was clear that the matters which he was dealing with for Mr. Andrews Junior were, from the start, well within that capability and, as was confirmed in the Official Solicitor's report, all of them were carried out in a competent manner. Through the 1970's his experience in commercial transactions, many of them substantial, grew. Therefore the handling by him of the purchase by Neville Johnston of the shares in the Company would have been a matter well within his capabilities, and would not have required to be monitored.
(2) I have already indicated to you the background to Mr. Wright's offence. At the time of being charged Mr. Wright had left Tughan & Company. Indeed he had left before Mr. Hall's investigations in 1983. Whilst I believe he may still at that time have been carrying out some legal work, he had moved into the field of computers and their application to the legal profession.
You ask of our reaction to the news of Mr. Wright's conviction. You will appreciate from what has been said above that our first knowledge of the misleading statements of Mr. Wright arose at the end of 1983 when we confronted him with the documentation which we has found. Our reactions at that stage were first one of dismay that a colleague should have acted in the way which Mr. Wright had acted in relation to Mr. Andrews' incapacity, secondly one of some anger at being misled by Mr. Wright and thirdly, it must be said, a certain amount of sorrow that someone as competent and with whom we had worked for some time should behave in this way in the knowledge that it was going to have a devastating effect on his future. The question of suspension by the firm did not arise as he had already left the firm before the grounds for any potential action against him became known.
If I can then refer to your final question in that particular paragraph.
For the reasons set out above there was no sale, rather one aspect of a quite complicated transaction involving the acquisition of a company was not completed. The transaction was one with which Mr. Wright was more than capable of dealing. The method by which the property was to be dealt with, that is in the context of the purchase of the shares in the Company from the Andrews family, would not have indicated anything untoward. When it came to the sale of the shares in Neville Johnston to Rylands no transfer of property took place since it was a share sale.
Any assets of Neville Johnston and its subsidiaries passed with the passing of the shares and without more. I also have stated that at no stage did any member of the family over a number of years make any comment whatsoever to the partners about the underlying problem of Mr. Freddie Andrews Junior's incapacity which is at the heart of the problem.
(3) I believe I have dealt with the first question that you have asked and explained the position regarding your second question. I am not certain what happened in the Law Society to Mr. Wright after his conviction.
I am however concerned about the juxtaposition of the reference to Mr. Wright being at first exculpated (sic) and your question relating to my position in the Society. I did hold a position in the Law Society at the time that Mrs. Wright reported the case. I had just taken office as Junior Vice President of the Society and as such was in charge of the Practice committee, which dealt with complaints. The Minutes of that Practice Committee and the Minutes of the Council record that I disqualified myself from all meetings and took no part at any stage of the proceedings involving Mr. Wright, or our firm. We replied to any request from the Society for information during the course of their investigation. The Society took the matter right through all of its procedures as it would in any case. In due course the Society passed the matter to the independent Disciplinary Committee.
(4) As I have indicated above, Mr. Charles Gilpin was a client of Tughan & Company. He was a client before Mr. Wright became a solicitor in the firm and therefore before any of the present partners joined Tughan & Company. Indeed Mr. Wright was already dealing with Mr. Gilpin's affairs before any of the present partners joined the firm.
(5) I believe that I have answered this question, I cannot remember the figures but I would be extremely surprised if the total figure, with interest, was £135,000. Since the title to the property at Smithfield had not passed out of the name of Freddie Andrews Junior this sum, which purported to represent its purchase price, would not belong to him. In its place the estate received the figure which represented proper rental income from that property.
(6) I believe that I have dealt with this. The full procedures of the Society were duly followed. The matter was passed to the Disciplinary Committee who came to their decision.
We are concerned should there be any suggestion made that the partners of this firm were in any way involved in any improper action or have sought to avoid proper responsibility on their part, no matter how that responsibility has arisen. At all stages the firm has co-operated and assisted in the investigation by the court, in the investigations of the Official Solicitor, the investigations of the police and the investigation by the Law Society.
The Official Solicitor has already commented upon the fact that it was as a result of much of the work that was done by the present partners that the full picture became known.
This is a matter which has at all stages been under the control of the Official Solicitor, who in turn has been under the control of the High Court. The liabilities of this firm arising out of its employment of Mr. Wright were fully investigated. When those liabilities crystallised they were confirmed as proper and true figures by the Court. Only when that confirmation was given by the Court were the agreed amounts paid. We have also faced an investigation by our own Society and in due course by the Disciplinary Committee. My own position in the Society mattered not one jot. Indeed it was my position in the Society which involved the role of the Senior Solicitors which would not have occurred if I had not been involved in the affairs of the Society. There has been no question of anybody being exculpated by the Society, Mr. Wright or ourselves. The matter was dealt with by an independent Committee which made its decisions.
We of course cannot accept that the actions of Mr. Wright in not either insisting on the appointment of a Committee for Mr. Andrews Junior from the outset or alternatively refusing to act, were anything but wrong. However at no time have we been acquainted with any suggestion by anyone investigating the matter, let alone any evidence, that Mr. wright received any personal benefit or gain out of this whole matter. We are not aware of any evidence or claim that Mr. Gilpin received any assets of the Patient other than the abortive transfer of the property at Smithfield. This should not have occurred but we mention it in the context of the allegations of plunder referred to in your letter.
As far as we are aware any possible loss to Mr. Andrews Junior's estate has been compensated under the supervision of the High Court and the official Solicitor.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity of explaining our position in relation to the matter raised by your questions and we hope that the above is of some assistance.
T. A. BURGESS